ANNAPOLIS More than half of all Maryland juvenile offenders have psychiatric problems, and one in four require mental health services that many aren’t getting, experts said Wednesday.
A lack of coordination between justice and mental health officials often prevents the young people from getting the services they need, according to a University of Maryland study that formed part of a national look at juvenile mental health services that was released on Wednesday.
Efforts to fix the problem are already underway.
Delegate Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, has introduced a bill in the Maryland Assembly that would require officials to screen all young people involved in serious crimes for mental health and substance abuse. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a March 12 hearing on the bill. Similar legislation also was introduced in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.
“There need to be procedures that identify juveniles who need help at the earliest stages,” said Patty Schminke, an aide to Montague. “Instead of throwing them in jail.”
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice has not taken a position on the bill, said Bob Kannenberg, a department spokesman. But he said with nearly 58,000 cases last year alone and a cost of $200 to $250 per screening, such a law may be costly.
“Obviously, the majority of these kids do not need the screening in every single case,” Kannenberg said. “It’s more of a case-by-case basis. A kid breaking a window wouldn’t necessarily need it.”
The problem was detailed in a 1998 study by Deborah Shelton, a University of Maryland School of Nursing professor, in which 312 youths were interviewed from 15 juvenile facilities across the state.
The Shelton study painted a startling picture of the emotional well-being of the young people inhabiting Maryland’s jails and detention centers. Many had lived a life outside the facilities where violence, drugs, sex and abuse reigned uncontrolled.
“It is the nature of childhood,” said Shelton, who will testify at the March hearing to support the Montague bill. “Kids get in trouble. But if you read these kids histories, they’ve had some pretty horrendous lives.”
Shelton’s study showed 83 percent of the youths said they used drugs or alcohol, 57 percent had a history of mental illness, and 19 percent admitted to having suicidal thoughts.
Nearly half of the youths had run away, over a third were teen-aged parents and 41 percent were sexually active.
Violence touched more than two out of three of the participants in the study. More than half experienced sexual or physical abuse.
Linda Raines, who heads the Mental Health Association of Maryland said state officials have been well aware of the problem and working to find the resources to address it.
“It’s been a long-standing issue in our state,” she said, noting that Gov. Parris N. Glendening mentioned the problem in a recent speech. “Yes, the problem is there, but (state officials) have been working on it for a long time.”
Compounding those difficulties is the fact that state juvenile justice officials often don’t know to refer the young people to trained counselors, according to a national study released Wednesday by the National Mental Health Association.
“Nationwide we found that most states did a poor job of linking children with services after they left the juvenile justice system,” said Chris Seigfried, who authored the study of 11 states.
NMHA released only a portion of the study and did not provide comparisons to other states. The study’s release coincided with the introduction of a bill similar to Montague’s in Congress by U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D- Minnesota.
Seigfried said obstacles to getting services include high costs for mental health care, lack of insurance and a lack of early intervention efforts for younger offenders.
Seigfried recommended mental health training for judges and justice personnel, and automatic screening for children who enter the justice system.
Shelton said measures like the Montague bill and increased funding for early intervention programs would go a long way toward helping the troubled young people.
“These kids take along time to get this way,” Shelton said. “So it’s going to take a lot of effort to get them out.”